As President Hu Jintao took a series of steps to repair relations with the US which have come under a strain following the decision of the Barack Obama Administration earlier this year to sell a new arms package to Taiwan and the meeting of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Mr Obama in the White House during his visit to Washingtom DC, the goodwill sought to be re-generated between the political leaderships of the two countries is under threat of fresh dilution as a result of measures taken by the People's Liberation Army of China (PLA).
Among the measures taken by Mr Hu to repair relations with the US were the Chinese support for sanctions by the UN against Iran on the nuclear issue, the Chinese decision to let the yuan float slightly in relation to the US dollar and Mr Hu's acceptance of an invitation extended by Mr Obama during their meeting in the margins of the G-20 summit at Toronto to pay a State visit to Washington DC later this year. According to all accounts, the meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Hu at Toronto went off cordially though the Chinese did not come out with a decision to lift the suspension of exchange of visits by military and defence officials of the two countries, which was imposed by them in protest against the sale of the arms package to Taiwan. Recently, they had refused to lift this suspension and extend an invitation to Mr Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, to visit China after his visit to Singapore to attend an Asian Security Conference. It was reported that while Mr Hu readily accepted the invitation from Mr Obama to pay a State visit to Washington DC, he did not respond positively to a suggestion from Mr Obama for a visit by Mr Gates to China.
The interpretation by many China analysts that the strong line taken by Beijing on military-related issues after the announcement of the arms sales to Taiwan must have been on the insistence of the PLA leadership is likely to be further strengthened by the strong Chinese reaction to the proposed participation of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier USS George Washington in a joint naval exercise with the South Korean Navy in the Yellow Sea. This exercise and the participation of the US carrier in it were reportedly decided upon by the Obama Administration as part of a series of cautionary measures in the wake of the incident in March in which a South Korean Naval vessel sank after being hit by a torpedo allegedly fired by a North Korean ship. A number of South Korean naval personnel were killed. China has so far avoided supporting any move for economic sanctions or other punitive measures against North Korea in this connection.
A wave of criticism in Chinese blog spots and internet chat rooms of the proposed naval exercise in the Yellow Sea and the participation of the US carrier has been followed by an announcement by the PLA on June 28 that the PLA would be conducting live ammunition exercises in the East China Sea from June 30 to July 5. Sections of the Chinese media have made no secret of the fact that these exercises are in response to the US-South Korea naval exercise and the participation of the US carrier in it. A strongly worded commentary under the title "US Military Presence in the Yellow Sea" by one Huang Xiangyang uploaded on the web site of the China Daily on June 28, stated as follows:
"In a terse news release, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) announced on Monday that it will conduct live ammunition exercises in the East China Sea from June 30 to July 5. No reason was given for this seemingly unusual military arrangement--the last time the East China Sea was turned into a shooting ranch was in March 1996, when the PLA conducted ballistic missile exercises by firing surface-to-surface rockets from the mainland to sea targets to deter then-Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui from his political stunt of seeking the island's independence.
"Anyone with basic knowledge on geopolitics and military strategy would get the message behind the timing of the announcement. It is definitely not total coincidence that such sensitive news is made public on the same day that a joint military drill by the US and South Korean navies is scheduled to start in the Yellow Sea, citing threats from North Korea.
"But the Yellow Sea is no common place where a country can flex its muscles. It is historically China's front yard. In 1894 the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) fought a sea battle here with Japan in a vain attempt to retain the empire's fast-fading influence over the rest of Asia. For Chinese, the Yellow Sea has no less military significance to China's sovereignty and national security than the Gulf of Mexico has to the United States.
"Despite repeated complaints from China, the Pentagon has shown no signs of refraining from testing the country's strategic bottom line by going ahead with the plan to show off its military force. With the nuclear-powered aircraft USS George Washington set to participate in the joint exercise, China's key cities such as Beijing and Tianjin, as well as parts of its economically prosperous eastern coast are exposed under direct military threat from US forces. Given that the Pentagon has a history of dropping "missed bombs" on a country's embassy, such worries are by no means baseless.
"There is a Chinese saying that even a rabbit--meek and gentle though it may be--will fight back when cornered. It is justified that a wave of public outcry and vehement calls for tit-for-tat military arrangement has emerged in countless online chat rooms in response to the US military adventure at China's doorstep. We see the US ignoring Chinese security concerns as an act meant to cause humiliation. And the latest announcement of the firing practice, to some extent, helps assuage simmering sentiment.
"Because of the US policy toward Taiwan, characterized by continuing arms sales to the island, which has hurt China's "core national interest," the PLA has put its military contact with the Pentagon on hold. The sense of enmity has not eased, although US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has "stated for the record that the United States does not consider China as an enemy but as a partner." This is because Chinese culture values action over words. The US military presence in the Yellow Sea regardless of China's concerns, in addition to its never-ending reconnaissance activities along China's coastline, only reinforces Chinese impression of Uncle Sam as a double dealer.
"In 1996, the US sent two aircraft carriers near the Taiwan Straits--in the first act of American coercion against China in nearly four decades--to countermeasure Beijing's missile tests. It has been considered a provocative move to trample on China's dignity. Compared with the United States, China is still weak. But to emerge as a great nation in the world community, China has to stand up to the United States militarily, especially near its own shores."
It will be interesting to find out whether Mr Hu raised the issue of the joint naval exercise in equally strong terms with Mr Obama at Toronto. If not and if it is the PLA which has reacted strongly, it will be a clear indication that the Chinese political and military leaderships are not on the same page with regard to the relations with the US.
The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.